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Nalini Joseph: All masks aren’t equal in fight against COVID-19

There are huge problems with oversimplifying complicated issues. 

Not everything is black or white, good or evil. One controversial topic that Americans have been grappling with since March 2020 has been the practice of wearing masks. One segment of society strongly believes in wearing masks (or face coverings) in public areas; conversely, there are those who are just as adamant that there is little to no benefit to wearing a mask. If you followed the news over the last year, you know that California’s COVID cases spread like wildfire in 2020. Infections were out of control and the death rate was mind blowing. Yes, California: a blue state in which most people wear masks. 

How can this be? Let’s take a deeper dive into the effectiveness of the various types of masks we wear.            

According to those who are experts in the field of mask manufacturing, the effectiveness of masks depends on how many particulates (or germs) can penetrate and how many particulates are discharged from the mask. The N95 mask is the most effective that we have available to us. It keeps out at least 95% of particulates that attempt to pass through. (This number usually varies between 97 and 98% effective in most tests.) It filters out particulates that are above 0.3 microns. In comparison, a strand of hair is approximately 70 microns in size.   

Filtration efficiency is based on the rating of the mask and each type of mask is graded. The N95 is made up of multiple layers that filter particulates. The N95 is slightly more difficult to breathe through than textile-based or cotton masks; hence, the use of less-effective, albeit fun and colorful cloth masks. The next most-effective mask is the surgical mask. This type of mask is more efficient than the cloth mask — although one can double up on masks to create more effectiveness. The least effective mask is the cloth mask, but with cool designs, insignias and sparkles, the fashion industry has lured many of us into buying these.

There is much to know about masks, and as a person who is not a medical or engineering professional, I don’t pretend to understand more than the very basics about masks and their efficiency levels. However, my ultimate point is this: a person who is quick to label a non-mask wearer as ignorant and a person who calls the practice of not wearing masks “hogwash” may be the same person who chooses to wear a cloth mask. This person may go into a restaurant and take off his mask to eat and converse with a group of people who are sitting just a few feet away. This same person may not wash or sanitize his hands before touching his fork and glass. This person may also not follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for how to wash, put on and take off a mask.  

The citizens of Taiwan experienced 200 days of zero cases of COVID-19 while the pandemic raged throughout the Americas, Europe and the rest of Asia. They have had a few cases of COVID-19 in the last year (the internet shows a total of 10 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic), but for the most part the government and the Taiwanese people have eradicated the disease in their country. Yes, they wore masks, but they did much more. Most did not wear N95 masks; they were already accustomed to wearing surgical masks out in public, as SARS had knocked on Taiwan’s doorstep just a few years ago. Schoolchildren must wash hands and dip their shoes into a pan of disinfectant before entering the school building. Children sit and eat lunch in silence behind a cubicle type of partition that separates each student from the next. Each visitor to the island is ushered from the airport into mandatory quarantine for two weeks.  

In America, we witness those that accuse others based on political affiliation, which politicizes a deadly pandemic. These accusations create more hatred in a country that is already deeply divided. Be careful when categorizing others as “right” or “wrong” when their practices do not align with your own.      

  

 

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